When Does Thumb Sucking Become a Problem?

Many children give up the habit before they start preschool, but for persistent thumb suckers, intervention might be necessary.

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that calms, soothes, and lulls a baby or child to sleep. Even in the womb, fetuses suck their thumbs to prepare themselves to breastfeed. Most children drop the habit on their own as they get a little older and are more capable of processing their emotions. But for some children, the need to soothe isn’t satisfied, and they continue to suck their thumb or pacifier.

Most pediatricians and dentists recommend that your child stop sucking their thumb or using a pacifier by the time they are between two and four years old. In most cases, thumb sucking is not usually a concern, but if the habit persists or becomes a constant or vigorous habit, professional intervention may be recommended.

Can Thumb Sucking Cause Damage?

With a healthy bite, there is a small overlap between the front top and bottom teeth. Thumb sucking or continued pacifier use might prevent these teeth from fully erupting or cause them to protrude, creating an open bite, which is a gap between the top and bottom teeth even when the mouth is closed. An open bite can cause speech problems, language delays, and chewing difficulties.

If the habit isn’t corrected early enough, orthodontics or other dental treatment may be needed to fix any issues that may arise.

Help Your Child

Most of the time, the best strategy is to ignore the behavior. If your child is older than four or signs of a shifting bite or obsessive behavior are emerging, you should mention it at your child’s next visit. Here are some ways to help your child curb the habit at home:

  • Praise your child when they have not sucked their thumb or pacifier.
  • If you notice your child sucks their thumb when they’re anxious, talk to them and calmly ask why they feel worried or upset.
  • Reward your child with a small prize when they have gone a predetermined length of time without sucking their thumb or pacifier.
  • Make a game out of it! Make a chart for your child and mark each day with a gold star so that they can see their progress as a motivational tool.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, professional help is needed to break the thumb-sucking cycle. There are bitter tasting ointments and habit deterring appliances available, and for the most severe cases, sometimes a trip to a therapist or psychologist can get to the root of the problem.

Whichever treatment method you choose, remember to use positive reinforcement to encourage your child. Criticism, nagging, or scolding your child for sucking their thumb might make the problem worse and cause more anxiety for your child. Provide a loving and nurturing atmosphere and reassure your child that they are safe and loved.

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